In­nate busi­ness sense

The West Australian - - OBITUARIES -

JOHN BENNISON For­mer head of Wes­farm­ers Born: Man­dalay, Burma, 1924 Died: Perth, aged 92

Ca­reer sug­ges­tions from a father-in-law may not al­ways bear fruit but John Bennison was wise to heed the ad­vice to “do some­thing more mean­ing­ful”. His wife Joyce’s father, Nor­man Brear­ley, was a dec­o­rated World War I pi­lot and civil avi­a­tion pi­o­neer who had proved brave in the air and ex­er­cised sound judg­ment on land. Per­haps he knew a thing or two, John re­alised.

He placed an ad in The West Aus­tralian, of­fer­ing his ser­vices to “any suit­able em­ployer”. The tele­phone soon rang. It was the as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager of Wes­farm­ers, Keith Edwards. “I read your lit­tle no­tice in the pa­per,” he said.

John must have been a highly suit­able em­ployee be­cause within 20 years of that ad’s ap­pear­ance in 1954 he was the boss of the whole show and stayed at the helm for 10 years.

When the com­pany cel­e­brated its cen­te­nary in 2014, one of its birth­day pub­li­ca­tions gave praise, nat­u­rally, to a range of peo­ple who had ex­celled as lead­ers. It was John Bennison, how­ever, who “should ar­guably be ac­cred­ited as the ar­chi­tect of the mod­ern day Wes­farm­ers”, was one as­sess­ment.

It was the sort of en­dorse­ment to bring smiles at Hale School, where he had fin­ished his sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion in 1941. One of four sons of Arthur and Doris Bennison, he was born on July 3, 1924, in Man­dalay, Burma, where his father was work­ing. John set­tled in Aus­tralia at the out­set of World War II.

Af­ter leav­ing Hale, John went on to Perth Tech­ni­cal Col­lege but his ed­u­ca­tion was in­ter­rupted by the war. At 18 he joined the Royal Aus­tralian Air Force and, train­ing as a pi­lot, won his “wings” at the Ser­vice Fly­ing Train­ing School in Ger­ald­ton. He met Joyce Brear­ley dur­ing this pe­riod.

In 1943, though the tide of war was turn­ing in the Al­lies’ favour, air crew from all over the Em­pire were par­tic­u­larly wel­come. John was one who flew Lan­caster bombers over oc­cu­pied Europe.

Af­ter mar­ry­ing in 1946 he and Joyce lived in New South Wales, where he at­tended univer­sity in Ar­madale. Work on farms gave him an idea of what agri­cul­tur­al­ists grum­bled about and might need to ac­quire in or­der to over­come prob­lems.

The Satur­day morn­ing chat with Keith Edwards in Perth was all the man­age­ment needed to of­fer John a job on the spot. He started off as a one-man bud­getary con­trol depart­ment but soon showed he could per­form more than cler­i­cal du­ties. He was in­vited to pre­pare a re­port on sev­eral of the com­pany’s re­tail stores that were un­der­per­form­ing.

“In­sight­ful” is how Wes­farm­ers has de­scribed the new man’s con­tri­bu­tion.

His next moves up the promotional lad­der were gas fired, so to speak. In the 1950s liq­uid petroleum gas (LPG) was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly im­por­tant as a source of power to homes and in­dus­try in WA. John was given a cen­tral role in spread­ing the Kleen­heat word and its cus­tomer base. “All the hot water you could ever want”, was the prom­ise in ads.

He even­tu­ally be­came as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager and on New Year’s Day 1974 “JB”, as his staff called him, took over the top job from Edwards, the man who had first spot­ted his po­ten­tial.

Praise for JB comes from present Wes­farm­ers chair­man, Michael Chaney: “John had the best com­mer­cial judg­ment of any­one I have dealt with in busi­ness. He had an in­nate un­der­stand­ing of what made sense com­mer­cially and ded­i­cated him­self to achiev­ing it, of­ten against the odds.

“He also had an un­usual way of ex­press­ing him­self to the point where you some­times didn’t quite know whether you’d un­der­stood his re­quest or ob­ser­va­tion.

“This had the cu­ri­ous ef­fect of mak­ing you think more lat­er­ally than you might have and in a busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment that can be very use­ful. It also made him a good negotiator be­cause he rarely said what peo­ple on the other side ex­pected, and it was no doubt quite dis­arm­ing.”

Chaney, who in 1982 was hired by John as com­pany sec­re­tary, has an amus­ing ex­am­ple of the Bennison style of ec­cen­tric com­mu­ni­ca­tion. In the Wes­farm­ers his­tory The Peo­ple’s Story, pub­lished in 2014, Chaney quotes John as us­ing the phrase: “I think you should pull it on.” What JB meant was: “I think you should ac­cept the of­fer (by deputy chief Trevor East­wood) to join our staff.”

John’s decade in charge (1974–84) in­cluded the long bat­tle to ac­quire the fer­tiliser and chem­i­cals firm CSBP, lead­ing in 1979 to Aus­tralia’s biggest cor­po­rate takeover.

Af­ter re­tir­ing, John had more op­por­tu­nity to in­dulge his love of cars. A V8 Holden was a favourite but there were also Dodges and Jaguars. Trout fish­ing of­fered a peace­ful op­tion away from com­merce.

John Bennison died on May 6, and is sur­vived by daugh­ters Jane, Sally and Kate, son Si­mon, six grand­chil­dren and four great-grand­chil­dren. Joyce, his wife of 68 years, died in 2014.

The con­glom­er­ate has good rea­son to be glad its man “pulled on” an in­ter­est in art dur­ing a visit to Paris. As gen­eral man­ager he even­tu­ally per­suaded the board to ac­quire works by many of Aus­tralia’s finest artists, in­clud­ing Gu­lumbu Yunupingu, Sid­ney Nolan and Guy Grey-Smith. Whereas Kleen­heat was about power, the glory of hu­man en­deav­our is en­shrined in the Wes­farm­ers Col­lec­tion.

Pa­trick Cor­nish

John Bennison left a legacy of in­sight­ful­ness and art at Wes­farm­ers.

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